A Brief History of Beijing's Toilet Revolution

By Noelle Mateer, April 7, 2017

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It has been a wild year for Beijing's toilets. 

Debates over public spaces have been front and center (remember all that dancing granny drama?). And when it comes to public spaces, few remind us of our shared humanity more than, well, public toilets. 

But first, some history. We reported news of Beijing’s ‘Toilet Revolution’ back in 2015, when tourism authorities announced plans to build 13,000 new toilets and renovate a further 9,000 at attractions across China. (‘Toilet Revolution’ was their term.) 

“Insufficient and unhygienic toilets have damaged China’s national image and left tourists unhappy,” said the head of China National Tourism Administration, Li Jinzao. Well, you don’t say. 

Many speculated online about what the cleanup effort would entail. The Tourism Administration wouldn’t rule out replacing traditional squatters with Western-style toilets. ‘Could squatting become a thing of the past?‘ our headline mused. (Ha, of course not.) 

The Toilet Revolution puttered along quietly until 2016, when Beijing announced plans for state-of-the-art, maybe even glamorous, public toilets. Planned for Tongzhou and Fangshan districts, the bathrooms will allegedly feature Wi-Fi, ATMs and even charging ports for electronics. They will also include some much-needed ventilation, plus heating and air conditioning. Authorities said that the bathrooms would always remain between 12 and 30 degrees Celsius. (Hutong planners, please take note.) 

Then an altogether different kind of revolution started. That summer, bathrooms in bars and restaurants around the city began sporting a now-ubiquitous sign, reading ‘All Gender Toilet.’ Designed to make transgender and non-gender-conforming Beijingers more comfortable, they were a huge success. And in the midst of a simultaneous battle over transgender bathroom rights in America, it was a beautiful middle finger to those places less accepting. 

The signs spread like wildfire, as did transgender-rights awareness. Things were looking up. 

And then. Hordes of thieving grannies were caught on CCTV cameras, their images disseminated across WeChat and Weibo for public mockery. They took reams of toilet paper from the bathrooms at the Temple of Heaven, and brought them home for their own use. And they’d come back for more, multiple times a day in some cases. 

The story made headlines the world over – even The New York Times ran shots of the TP burglars. But the Temple of Heaven is no pushover (it has, after all, been around since the 15th century). The park’s authorities fought back by installing facial recognition technology in their bathrooms. Anyone who needs paper must now stand in line, remove their hats and sunglasses, and get their faces scanned by the machine, which will then dispense precisely 60cm of toilet paper. It has caused longer lines, and, of course, more outrage on social media. 

So, will we see these machines across the city? Doubtful. According to a 2012 study, only a quarter of Beijing’s 12,000 public toilets even offer paper. And the seven public toilets at the Temple of Heaven Park are the crème de la crème anyway, what with their four-star ratings from the Beijing Tourism Administration. (Yes, there are toilet ratings.) 

And only the Administration itself knows what’s in store for the Toilet Revolution. For now, there’s only one thing we know for sure: squatting is definitely not a thing of the past. 

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